YULEE, Fla. – Before the school bell rang, people standing with a Yulee High School student showed their support after controversy over a student saying "God bless America" during the morning announcements.
Several protesters held signs and chanted outside of the high school. One protester said the whole situation neglects a student's freedom of speech.
"It was crazy... I think everyone has the right of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. I hope he does it again," said Kathy Parker.
That student has been told to stop using the phrase "God bless America" during the morning announcements after a national atheist group contacted the school on behalf of two atheist students who complained to the organization.
The student used the phrase to end the announcements on multiple occasions, according to the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to the school's principal threatening legal action if the school did not respond within seven days. The incident thrust Yulee into the national spotlight after the AHA got involved.
Parker says she doesn't have any kids in high school yet, but said she will continue to support the student at Yulee.
"We want to let him know he should not be ashamed, that he did the right thing. I don't see what this young man has done wrong.... We need to stand out here and stand up for him," said Kathy Parker.
Principal Natasha Drake's response to the American Humanist Association said the student's "God bless America," statement was not part of the approved scripted announcements.
"The student on his own accord made the statement," Drake wrote to the AHA. "I have called the student in this morning and directed him that at no time is he to add or take away from announcements that have been pre-approved and that if he did it again, he would no longer have the privilege of making the morning announcements. I am disappointed that the students who filed the complaint did not do so with me first, as I would have addressed it immediately."
School officials did not say the student doesn't have the right to say "God bless America" on campus, just not on the loudspeaker, which officials said implies that the school endorses the statement.
Niose said he appreciated the principal's quick response and felt she handled the situation appropriately.
"It's not benign for the school to be making statements like 'God bless America,' because those kind of statements validate the idea that God-belief is patriotic," Niose said. "And it portrays nonbelievers as less patriotic, and that's what people are concerned about."
A district representative pointed out that the student "has not been punished or removed from the morning announcements. The principal explained the situation and said, 'Don't do that anymore.'"
"It's kind of upsetting to know our students was kind of (put) down for that. I mean, he spoke what he felt was right," student Penny Haymans said. "I'm kind of upset our principal didn't back him up."
"Got to agree with the Constitution," student Jamison Stallard said. "It says you can't, but I wish you could. God's in the Pledge (of Allegiance)."
More parents and students plan to demonstrate after Yulee High School lets out for the day.